Average cost of a college textbook: $150
Enroll for two online courses, each requiring one textbook, and you’re instantly out $300. Take 30 online courses to earn yourand watch your bank account dwindle by $4,500. And if you’re taking courses in specialty areas, such as accounting, count on spending even more.
Taking steps to slash your college textbook costs can literally cut thousands off the total cost of your online education. Unlike a decade ago, students today have multiple options for getting college textbooks online, including the option of downloading some free textbooks online or frequenting cheap online shopping sites.
Get Educated’s editors went shopping to find the best cheap or free textbooks online.
Best Ways to Save Money on Textbooks
The Four Thousand Dollar Question: Which textbook strategy promises the best pay-off (literally) for most online students?
- Buy a new printed textbook
- Buy a used printed textbook
- Rent a printed textbook for the semester
- Rent a digital or online textbook/e-book for the semester
Let’s look at these options in more detail.
Printed Textbooks — Rent & Return
You can cut university cost and save thousands by renting old-fashioned printed textbooks rather than buying them outright. Here’s some eye-opening data from a textbook-renting spree around the web:
“An Introduction to Mathematical Statistics and Its Applications” (6th Edition)
By Richard A. Larsen
LIST PRICE — $186.65
BUY NEW ON AMAZON — $158.48
RENT FOR A SEMESTER AT — $36.99
SAVINGS: About $150 if you choose to rent and return rather than buy that statistics tome.
Tips for Using Textbook Rental Sites
- Read the Fine Print
Save more by scrutinizing the terms of your textbook rental agreement. Make sure there are no extra costs or late fees (other than extended rental periods) so you don’t pay more than you expect. Read the rental agreement and make sure you understand the dates, terms, and conditions you are promising. A 30-day money-back guarantee is a nice thing to have in there—what if you decide to drop the course
- Check the ISBN Number
Wow, that textbook looks too cheap to be real! Well, it is probably an older edition. Check carefully to make sure you have the most up-top-date version of what you are required to get for your class. Always makes sure to check the details against what your teacher has assigned.
- Compare Different Rental Sites
There are many options to rent your textbooks—don’t just run to Amazon. You may find other sites to be cheaper or to give you better rental terms and ease of use.
- Pick the Right Rental Period
For example, some online textbook rental companies will rent books for shorter periods than a semester, so what looks like a deal may not be so great. Make sure the rental period will cover the full length of time you will need the textbook, including getting you through your exam period. Extending a rental (or returning it late) may add to your overall cost.
- Careful With That Cup of Coffee
Most textbook rental companies allow for a little wear and tear on the textbook when you return it to the, maybe a small mark on the cover, or just a little wear on the pages. Some even allow you to highlight in their books without charging you. But study over breakfast? Late night cram session? Don’t drop a bite of egg or spill your coffee, or you may end up paying for a replacement copy.
- Look for Shipping Discounts
Special deals are being offered as the online textbook rental business becomes super-competitive. Some online vendors already offer free or discounted shipping. Cash in on shipping incentives and save another $10 to $20 per rented textbook. Lots of sites offer free shipping and free returns, so calculate your total cost of rental plus shipping when you are comparing offers.
Digital Textbooks: A Good Deal?
Digital or downloadable textbooks cost an average of $50 — half to one-third the cost of a new printed textbook. Good deal, right? Well, maybe not. According to the Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), most digital textbooks (e-books) are cheaper than their printed predecessors—but only on the surface. Dig deeper and old-fashioned printed textbooks may still be your best buy.
Most digital textbooks come with unattractive features that call into question their promise of being a “more affordable option” for online students. First, the majority of eTexts are designed to self-destruct from your hard drive 180 days after download. Make sure 180 days is enough time for you to absorb needed knowledge. If not, your books may vaporize just when you need them for a last-minute cram session. To keep your textbooks from vaporizing, you may be required to pay more fees.
More importantly, understand that you can’t resell a used e-book. After the book has been on your computer hard drive for 180 days, it’s POOF! Gone! No more book!
Many online students will find it more cost-effective to buy a printed textbook and resell it at the end of the semester or rent used printed textbooks outright.
If you own a book, you can always sell it online as a “used” book. The market for used textbooks remains hot and healthy. A printed text bought for $150 can usually be resold for about 50 percent of its sticker price.
Buy New Printed Textbook: $150Sell Back Used at End of Semester: $75Actual Out-of-Pocket Cost of Textbook: $75
Renting a printed textbook costs about the same as renting a digital text, but printed textbooks don’t evaporate.
And you can recoup part of the cost if you buy a printed textbook through re-sale.
Another drawback to digital textbooks: most limit the number of pages you can print at one time. Ten pages is a typical max before the e-book locks up on you. This can be a hassle if you need to print out more than 10 pages for a portable late-night cram session.
CONSUMER ALERT: Many printed textbooks now come with an access code that students need to use the online resources like quizzes and study guides. These codes usually cannot be reused, which means that the textbook could have less value when students try to resell it.
Even for digital or online textbooks, there is often a code that students must “purchase” to get access to the homework and other resources of the course. These access codes, which are becoming very popular with faculty, can cost $100 or more, adding another cost for students.
Look for Deals in Bundled Online Textbooks
In an effort to reduce the burden of textbook costs, some online colleges have begun bargaining outright with publishers on behalf of their students. Others even include the cost of online textbooks in all of their courses, so there are no surprise extra costs for students.
Colorado’s Online Community College system, a consortium of 14 Colorado state-supported, plans to tack a $49 book fee onto online tuition costs. Payment of the $49 fee will allow online students access to Pearson Education’s extension library of digital textbooks for the entire semester.
With some textbooks costing more than $150 in print format, a one-time $49 digital access fee that allows access to multiple course textbooks can be a huge cost-cutter.
Similarly, Rio Salado Community College in Arizona created a unique partnership with Pearson Custom Publishing to produce customized printed textbooks with content specific to Rio Salado’s distance learning courses.
Beginning in 2009, Rio Salado promises its online students custom textbooks for more than 30 online courses at an average savings of 51 percent off the cost of the original new textbook.
Check with your online college prior to enrollment to see if they have special production or discounted rental or fee arrangements with any print or digital textbook publishers.
Textbook publishers are under a lot of pressure to produce a better product at a lower cost now that online book publishing and distributing have gone mainstream.
CONSUMER ALERT: Be more wary of textbooks that are “bundled” with an access code. You may have to pay to rent the textbook and the access code for areas where you will do homework and take quizzes. All of your coursework could be lost when your access expires, so if you had to drop the class and take it again later, you would lose all your hard work.
Cheap Textbooks Online
Some colleges are encouraging their online faculty to create and digitally distribute their own textbooks. These self-authored educational texts can be downloaded by students worldwide at no cost, or at very little cost compared to open-market textbook prices.
Many instructor-published texts cost under $40 each—about a third the price of a commercially produced textbook. However, low-cost, instructor-published texts aren’t widely available yet. You’d have to enroll in a course that offers this option to realize this type of savings.
Sites likeoffer textbooks, instructor manuals, and a homework system for teachers who want an affordable option for their students. With pricing from $25 to $40, most students will be able to afford the resources here if their professor uses this platform.
Free Textbooks Online — Open Source & Collaboration Books
You may have heard the term “Open Source,” which is an effort to make quality educational materials available free online worldwide—aka free textbooks online! There are a number of sites and organizations now promoting free textbooks online, and more teachers are signing on to the trend.
Open Educational Resources (OER) is a worldwide effort to improve access to quality education for everyone.You can search the site for textbooks, lessons, interactives, illustrations, and more. Faculty can use this resource to publish their work for others to use.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Open Education supports a project called the, which has textbooks that have been reviewed by educators from many institutions. They are adding new titles all the time, which are free to download or cheap to print. , a project supported by Rice University, is another site for free and easily accessible digital textbooks. As a charity, groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donate to keep the site going. Textbooks are peer reviewed by faculty so they should align well with many courses.
Check out HippoCampus, a non-profit distribution center for free educational texts, collaborative wikis, learning modules and study guides to help support your online education efforts.
HippoCampus is a project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE). The goal of HippoCampus is to provide high-quality, multimedia content on general education subjects to high school and college students free of charge. HippoCampus can also help you self-study toward competency exams, such as Advanced Placement (AP) exams in English, history, algebra and others (if your college accepts such exams for credit toward a degree or college credential).
Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) offers a very basic looking, no frills site that provides amazingfor free.
Bringing together high-quality cultural and educational content so it is easier to find,currently links over 200 free textbooks, with new ones continually being added. is a site run by students that seeks to encourage teachers and students to use free educational materials in classrooms. It provides an easily searchable database that connects to PDFs, eBooks, and online course content. has an extensive list of free and open textbooks for all types of subject areas.
For accounting, economics, engineering, marketing, management and IT books,is a great source for free textbooks. The price for their free textbooks is that you have to see a few ads while you read.
The companion site to Wikipedia,, has listings of free books sorted by subject area. It is worth a look if you are trying to find free resources on an academic topic. As yet, these are more like academic Wikipedia pages that are more authoritative and hopefully correct. But look for more developments on free information in this space.
Classic Books — Completely Free?
If you have a class in literature or the humanities, try searching Project Gutenberg. The free digital books archived here all reside in the public domain. These online books are 100 percent free.
Download to your heart’s content and you won’t be breaking any copyright laws. You won’t find contemporary free textbooks online at Project Gutenberg. But if your class calls for you to read a classic, like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” you can get a free and legal download of this book and many other classics from this digital treasure drove of yesteryear.
Free classic audio books are also available here. Plug in your iPod and let the online learning begin.
Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?
It’s a bit like the dog food problem. Dogs are the ones who are going to eat the food, but the owner is the purchaser of said dog . food. If the dog food manufacturers can make that dog food attractive to owners, they will buy it. Does the dog get a say? Not really.
Your course instructors get to choose the textbooks for your courses. They don’t have to buy them. In fact, it is likely that the publisher sends them a free copy. Or that their department purchases it for them. Professors have no incentive to find a less expensive option, and all the reputable academic publishers charge a fortune for most of their textbooks. The easiest thing is for the instructor to just assign what they have been sent, or what has been used in the past. They don’t feel the pain that you experience when buying expensive course materials.
One issue then is that the system is rigged to charge a lot for these “required” textbooks, and the people who suffer don’t have much of a say. But textbooks do take a lot of work to write, fact-check, proofread, and publish. So perhaps they are worth more than a superhero comic book. Publishers do need to charge a bit more to keep these resources up-to-date and relevant to curriculum standards. But how much is too much to charge? For thrifty students, there are many ways to find either good deals or free textbooks online, so maybe you don’t need to pay the list price.
Finally, Textbooks Are Getting a Little Cheaper
According to aby the National Association of College Stores, students spending on college course materials has declined somewhat. In 2008, reported spending per student was $700, while in 2017-18, the reported amount spent per student was $484. For the 2018-19 academic year, spending per student is down again slightly, to $415. So thee downward trend continues, hopefully making college more affordable for many struggling students.
89% of students reported using some free content, while traditional textbooks have only risen in cost. But there are many victories to celebrate. Congress renewed the Open Textbook Pilot program, which gives grants to colleges to help them adopt free textbooks online.
It is clear that more professors are choosing open access course materials to help students combat the rising cost of education. Students shouldn’t have to spend any more than necessary on textbooks when many are struggling to cover their basic expenses while going to college. Today’s students are increasingly working while studying, often in an online format, and juggling supporting themselves and their families to boot. Every dollar they can save on their education will help them succeed. With so many excellent open source textbooks available, teachers have fewer excuses for not switching to these great, and free, digital resources to make learning cheaper and more interactive for students.
Until all of your courses use free textbooks online (aka open source), use the power of the internet to find the best deals of required textbooks, whether rentals, digital access, or through buying and re-selling the print book. Don’t let the sticker price of a textbook keep you from getting the resources you need to succeed in your courses—there is always a way to get your textbooks for less.
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